First Monday

The digital melting pot: Bridging the digital native-immigrant divide

Educational technology advocates claim today’s students are technologically savvy content creators and consumers whose mindset differs from previous generations. The digital native–digital immigrant metaphor has been used to make a distinction between those with technology skills and those without. Metaphors such as this one are useful when having initial conversations about an emerging phenomenon, but over time, they become inaccurate and dangerous. Thus, this paper proposes a new metaphor, the digital melting pot, which supports the idea of integrating rather than segregating the natives and the immigrants.






Young people are viewed as prolific users of technology. A common stereotype of today’s student is of an individual who is adept at multitasking both off–line and online and who is constantly connected — always in touch — anytime, anyplace. Some scholars have suggested that information technology is reshaping the mindset of students of all ages and creating a “neomillennial” learning style (Dede, 2005a; 2005b).

Similarly, Prensky (2001) took a generational perspective and argued that exposure to certain technologies, such as video games and virtual worlds, have altered the minds of these students in such a way that educational theories that worked in the past do not in the twenty–first century. As Oblinger and Oblinger (2005) proclaimed, “Technology has changed the Net Generation, just as it is now changing higher education.” [1] These and similar claims are typically used to fuel arguments in support of modifying school to accommodate more active and adaptive technology–based educational trends.

But first, the question to be addressed is: Who are these individuals? The digital natives (also referred to as the Net Generation and the Millennials) are defined as individuals who were born between 1980 and 1994. According to Howe and Strauss (2003), these individuals are “smart, ambitious, incredibly busy, very ethnically diverse, and dominated by girls, to this point.” [2] They also have a close relationship with their parents — individuals sometimes referred to as helicopter parents, because they hover closely overhead and within reach of their child. In other words, these are individuals who are unwilling to let go of their child. As Brooks (2001) wrote, for today’s parents, “Your child is the most important extra–credit arts project you will ever undertake.” [3]

At present, there are questions about the impact of the recession on this generation of young people. More specifically, these decisions involve educational choices and living arrangements (Zernike, 2009). To save money, for example, some have chosen to attend two–year community colleges instead of four–year universities. They are opting to live at home with their parents, as well.

The purpose of this paper is three–fold: first, the paper investigates the digital native–digital immigrant metaphor; the next section critically examines some of the claims about these tech–savvy young people; and, the concluding segment explores a proposed alternative to the digital native–digital immigrant dichotomy — the digital melting pot.




Unpacking the digital native–digital immigrant metaphor

The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defines the term “native” as something innate, inherent, belonging. In contrast, the term “immigrant” describes something that arrives at a new place to settle. As these definitions suggest, the native (i.e., student) belongs and the immigrant (i.e., instructor) does not. Stated another way, the position of the student is privileged and viewed as superior in this technology–driven society.

In contrast, the instructor and others who lack these “superior” skills are marginalized, which is dangerous (e.g., Sandford, 2006). The digital native–digital immigrant metaphor segregates the individuals who are assigned these labels and results in an unequal power structure. It also implies that the immigrant can never become a native, which may serve to excuse individuals without tech skills (e.g., I don’t know how to fix the computer, because I’m a digital immigrant.).

The field of education has readily accepted the distinction that is accomplished through the native–immigrant metaphor (e.g., Bayne and Ross, 2007). Moreover, this rhetoric is often used to fuel proposals to radically change education. Through this one–size fits all characterization (Krause, 2007), students are viewed as a similar group of customers whose needs must be fulfilled. Bayne and Ross (2007) argued that the needs of these students become a “proxy for market needs.” [4] Instructors, in turn, are informed that they must modify their teaching practices to accommodate the learning styles and practices of their customers — these young, tech–savvy individuals. What is overlooked is the simplicity of these labels and their inability to address the complexity of the students who enter the physical and the digital classroom.

The tech–savvy “myth”

The digital native generation is often defined in relation to technology. Yet these young people tend not to view what adults consider new technologies as high–tech; rather, they see them as tools and devices for making their lives more efficient (Herring, 2008; Howe and Strauss, 2003). For a device to qualify as a technology, it must be “novel, challenging, and fun, not merely useful.” [5] As these statements suggest, young people are enthusiastic technology users. Recently, however, questions about the actual technological savviness of this generation of students have surfaced. According to Herring (2008), our images of youth, new media, and their experiences are described through an adult lens, which may not reflect the reality of the situation.

For instance, there are numerous claims about the technological capabilities of these students. However, some scholars argue that the empirical evidence to support them is lacking (e.g., Kennedy, et al., 2006). In fact, Bennett, et al. (2008) asserted that there is no evidence to suggest that this is a “new phenomenon exclusive to digital natives.” [6]

Moreover, scholars are beginning to insist that tech–savviness is more about exposure to technology than being affiliated with a particular generation (Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005). Even the tech–savvy skills that define a generation such as the so–called digital natives are not universal; these individuals come into the classroom with different competencies (Oblinger, 2008). Just because students can open up Google in their Web browser does not mean that they know how to find quality information resources.

Several studies serve to illustrate this point. Hargittai’s (2008) research, for one, revealed that first–year college students lack a basic understanding of technical terms such as phishing and tagging. Bennett, et al. (2008) also noted that the skill set of many of today’s students does not match the media reports. These authors highlight a study conducted by Kvavik, et al. (2004) that found that “only a minority of the students (around 21 percent) were engaged in creating their own content and multimedia for the Web, and that a significant proportion of students had lower level skills than might be expected of digital natives.” [7] In addition, librarians have observed that while students may appear to be adept when it comes to computers, they are typically not “geeks” and have “little understanding of what goes on behind their screen (and couldn’t care less).” [8]

While all young people are assumed to be proficient technology users, age may not be the only factor to consider. For example, a recent report of young people, ages 15–25, in four European countries — France, Germany, Spain, and the U.K. — claimed that there are significant differences in the digital culture between and among countries (Lusoli and Miltgen, 2009). This research found the following: the usage of social networking sites by participants in Spain was low; France reported more of a blogging scene; and, youth in Germany were more skilled overall.

The influence of geographic location on technology use was also reported in a study that included first year students at nine Australian universities (Krause, 2007). This work examined technological capabilities based on socioeconomic status, age, and gender. In general, Krause (2007) found that students come to the classroom with different needs and experiences.

More specifically, Krause’s results revealed that students in the rural areas had consistently low levels of Web use for study, recreation, and communication purposes; males and younger students used the Web more for recreational purposes in comparison to female and older students. Like Sandford (2006), Krause concluded that it is dangerous to assume that students have similar skill sets given that the use of these digital tools is far from a universal experience among these individuals.

Also, there is little evidence that students want more technology in the classroom. Just because students are prolific technology users in their personal life does not mean they want the same or similar experiences in the classroom. Based on a study conducted by the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (Salaway and Caruso, 2007), students reported that they preferred moderate technology use in their courses. This finding is consistent with previous research. In an earlier study of undergraduates in the United States, Caruso (2004) stated that only 13 percent of respondents indicated that the most valuable benefit of using technology in the classroom was improved learning [9]; instead, the most common responses by more than half of the study participants suggested that the devices were convenient and saved time.

Dinkins (2008) pointed to similar evidence and stressed that many students believe that “face time with instructors and class time with other students [is] critical to their success in college.” [10] Even Howe and Strauss (2003) asserted that the “Millennials” who go to college want a “flesh–and–blood rite of passage, a community of peers who really work and play and live together.” [11] In his survey of college students, Roberts (2005) came to similar conclusions. Students in his study reported that the key to their academic success is faculty who are committed to teaching.

Lohnes and Kinzer (2007) conducted an ethnographic study to further investigate student preferences. They examined the technology practices of nine students (three women and six men) who were tech–savvy and adept at using video production and editing software, as well as Web publishing software. With the exception of one student, however, these individuals “reviled the idea of using a laptop in the classroom.” [12] The students indicated that a laptop in class was a distraction, served as a physical barrier to participation and the creation of a classroom community, and was viewed as a way to distance oneself from others in the class.

This group of students also adopted a conventional definition of teaching and learning. As one student pointed out, “We’re there to get the professor’s expertise.” [13] Garcia and Qin (2007) found evidence to suggest that students have traditional ideas about teaching and learning, as well. In their study, the students “tended to believe that university–level course content was more effectively learned through lectures than readings, and through discussions with instructors.” [14]

Perhaps more importantly, there are signs that some students are not acquiring skills that will prepare them adequately for life beyond the classroom. In a recent report, Education Week outlined its state technology grades. These figures showed that California, the home of Silicon Valley, was at the bottom of the list in terms of computer access, use, and capacity (Asimov, 2008).

In addition, some college graduates are having a difficult time succeeding in the real world (Taylor, 2006). These young people are criticized for their lack of ambition and their lack of growing up — and the responsibility is placed on higher education, although parents have also received some of the blame. While the graduates have technological skills, employers complain that they lack basic and applied skills that are essential to job success, such as reading comprehension, written communication, and critical thinking (Cassner–Lotto and Benner, 2006).

Another point that runs counter to the digital native claims is the fact that the technology the digital natives use did not appear from nowhere. Someone had to design, build, and upgrade the technologies that have evolved into the electronic spaces that the natives now inhabit. Interestingly, very few educational technology advocates mention that the digital immigrants were the creators of these devices and environments.

In addition, many of these immigrants have been using technology for more than 30 years, which has enabled them to accumulate a vast array of experiences using a variety of products. This includes technologies that were typically not very user friendly. If a metaphor must be used, some scholars such as Sandford (2006) and De Saille (2006) argued the term “digital colonist” might more accurately reflect the characteristics of the immigrant group.

While the rhetoric asserts that new technologies are responsible for the change in today’s young people, at least in part, Owen (2004) suggested that some of the skills predate these digital devices. In 1944, Life magazine published an article — “Teenage girls: They live in a wonderful world of their own.” This piece not only pictorially represented the ways in which teenagers used devices such as the telephone, but it also showed that the fascination with the telephone, for example, predated the cell phone.

Further, teenagers are not the only ones who are dedicated technology users. According to a recent study, a large percentage of older adults are doing more activities online. In fact, 45 percent of adults 33–54 years of age are online (Jones and Fox, 2009). The difference, according to Jones and Fox (2009), lies in the type of activities — teens and young adults are online for entertainment and social networking; in contrast, older adults access the Internet to conduct research, shop, and to do banking. Even when it comes to digital games, older adults play every day or almost everyday (Lenhart, et al., 2008). While the media implies that technology skills are unique to the new generation of young people, there is counter evidence to suggest otherwise.

The tech skill–education mismatch

Because the tech–savvy stereotypes associated with today’s students appear to be based on misconceptions, educators need to rethink teaching and learning for the digital age (Brown, 2002). Grush (2008) interviewed Gary Brown, a learning technology strategist, about course management systems (CMS), ePortfolios, and personal learning environments (PLEs). Brown described an initiative at Washington State University (WSU) that involved bringing in employers to foster the move toward a more student–centered approach. He insisted that this was not just about corporations; rather, employers indicated that they want students to engage in better, more active and hands–on pedagogies, similar to those found in training settings. Brown added that in the end, employers cared more about acquired skills than test scores. Overall, the goal is not simply to acquire knowledge, but rather to be able to use it outside the classroom setting (Dziuban, et al., 2005).

Educators are beginning to investigate ways to teach information literacy, visual literacy, new media literacy, information fluency, and information competence skills to this new group of students (Lorenzo and Dziuban, 2006). Many young people have not learned about the new media literacy skills — play, multitasking, collective intelligence — at school (Jenkins, et al., 2008). Instead, they acquired their knowledge through involvement in informal learning environments, including fan and gamer communities.

But not all students are part of these learning networks and the content coverage is not always comprehensive. Therefore, educators must work to ensure that students gain these skills (Jenkins, et al., 2008). Rheingold (n.d.), who as he puts it “fell into the computer realm from the typewriter dimension,” is also working to change the belief that all students are tech–savvy by bringing emerging technologies — blogs, wikis, videos — into the college classroom (Rheingold, 2008; Young, 2008). His project is called the “Social Media Virtual Classroom” and is designed to expose students to “participatory media” in order to promote civic engagement.

In an attempt to move its students into the twenty–first century, the state of Michigan is revamping its high schools (Wallis and Steptoe, 2006). The state realizes that the automobile industry can no longer employ poorly educated and low skilled workers in their plants. At this time, Michigan has the most rigorous graduation requirements in the nation. Included in the list of requirements is that students must complete at least one online course before they graduate.

But requiring completion of an online course may not be enough. Duderstadt (2004), for one, advocated for changes to education and the use of technology in the classroom. At the same time, he admitted that it might be a good idea for educators to learn more about educational technologies, including virtual worlds, so they understand them.

However, the research presented in this paper calls into question Duderstadt’s (2004) claim that young people expect and demand technology in the classroom. He argued that in order for academia to maintain its values and standing, it will have to “transform itself once again to serve a radically changing world if it is to sustain these important values and roles.” [15] These sentiments challenged the results of other studies that suggested that students hold conventional positions with regard to teaching and learning (Garcia and Qin, 2007; Lohnes and Kinzer, 2007) and preferred moderate amounts of technology in the classroom (Salaway and Caruso, 2007). Because of these contradictory positions, Bennett, et al. (2008) would like to see a “disinterested examination of the assumptions underpinning claims about digital natives.” [16] Also, as Wesch (2009) stated, educational changes should be about the social spirit enabled by new technologies — collaboration, interaction, and participation — not the technologies themselves.




Digital wisdom or a digital melting pot?

In a recent article, Prensky (2009) proposed the concept of “digital wisdom.” This form of wisdom, according to Prensky, occurs from and in use of technology. Unlike the digital native–digital immigrant metaphor, digital wisdom transcends generational boundaries — even though digital immigrants can never become digital natives, these individuals can acquire and possess digital wisdom. President Obama was given as an example of a digital immigrant who has digital wisdom.

Prensky (2009) also stated that the brain is “highly plastic” and that the “brains of those who interact with technology frequently will be restructured by that interaction.” [17] Further, Prensky implied that knowledge at one’s fingertips equates to wisdom. Other educational scholars have argued (e.g., Brown and Duguid, 2000; Owen, 2004), however, that information access does not equal knowledge acquisition. As Brown and Duguid (2000) asserted, learning comes from informal social interactions between learners and their mentors, not from interactions with technology alone.

In general, the concept of digital wisdom attempts to integrate the digital immigrants into the technology areas where the digital natives reside. But even though they have the opportunity to become digitally wise, the immigrants remain segregated from the natives. In contrast, the metaphor of a “melting pot” brings to mind a less divided and disconnected vision. Here, the term digital melting pot refers to the blending of individuals who speak with different technology tongues. Instead of segregating individuals based on their skills or lack thereof, the digital melting pot is a place where all individuals, including those with low levels of competency, experience technology in a way that fosters opportunities without barriers.

The melting pot also symbolizes the bridge between the two cultures that the digital native–digital immigrant dichotomy creates. Through assimilation, individuals who lack the skills could be transformed into members of the tech–savvy culture and become incorporated into a common “life.” More skilled individuals would not be forever slotted into a category that may have been an inaccurate fit from the beginning.

Educators, as well as their corresponding institutions, could be major players in the digital melting pot assimilation process. Together they could provide all individuals the chance to acquire, refine, and update technology skills. The digital native–digital immigrant metaphor serves to place individuals into separate silos based on over–generalized and oftentimes inaccurate characteristics.

Biesta (2006) argued that educators should work to make individuals more unique and irreplaceable, rather than trying to make them more homogeneous. Overall, the digital melting pot metaphor redirects the attention away from the “assigned” generational characteristics. Instead, the focus of the melting pot is on the diverse set of technological capabilities individuals actually have, as well as the digital skills they might gain through experience. End of article


About the author

Sharon Stoerger is a doctoral candidate in the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her current areas of research include computer–mediated communication and communities of practice in virtual world–based learning environments.
E–mail: sstoerge [at] indiana [dot] edu



1. Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005, 2.16.

2. Howe and Strauss, 2003, p. 4.

3. Brooks, 2001, n.p.

4. Bayne and Ross, 2007, n.p.

5. Herring, 2008, p. 77.

6. Bennett, et al., 2008, p. 5.

7. Kvavik, et al., 2004, p. 4.

8. Lorenzo and Dziuban, 2006, p. 8.

9. Caruso, 2004, p. 5.

10. Dinkins, 2008, n.p.

11. Howe and Strauss, 2003, p. 127.

12. Lohnes and Kinzer, 2007, n.p.

13. Ibid.

14. Garcia and Qin, 2007, n.p.

15. Duderstadt, 2004, p. 29.

16. Bennett, et al., 2008, p. 10.

17. Prensky, 2009, n.p.



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Editorial history

Paper received 6 April 2009; accepted 10 June 2009.

Creative Commons License
“The digital melting pot: Bridging the digital native–immigrant divide” by Sharon Stoerger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The digital melting pot: Bridging the digital native–immigrant divide
by Sharon Stoerger.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 7 - 6 July 2009